ON 4 February 1789 the electoral college, entrusted by the newly adopted United States Constitution with the election of a president and vice president, voted unanimously for George Washington as the new nation's first chief executive. Since Washington was almost universally regarded as the indispensable man, neither his election nor his acceptance of the post was ever in doubt.
JOHN ADAMS became the second president of the United States when he took the oath of office in the packed House of Representatives on 4 March 1797. As he described this moving scene to his wife, there was "scarcely a dry eye but Washington's" at "the sight of the sun setting full orbed, and another rising, though less splendid." The new president understood well that no one could fill the role of the godlike father of the nation whose eight years in the presidency had ensured respect for the newly created federal government.
THOMAS JEFFERSON was inaugurated third president of the United States on 4 March 1801 in the infant capital on the Potomac. Raw, brash, and eager, a sprawling village of three thousand people—"a place with a few bad houses, extensive swamps, hanging on the skirts of a too thinly peopled, weak and barren country"—Washington was a fitting symbol of the new nation itself.
JAMES MADISON, was born on 16 March 1751 of a family that had been in Virginia since the mid-seventeenth century. Tradesmen and farmers at first, his forebears quickly acquired more lands and soon were among the "respectable though not the most opulent class," as Madison himself described them.
INAUGURATION day, 4 March 1817, was one of those rare late winter days in Washington with more than a hint of spring—sunny and balmy. Throughout the morning a steady stream of citizens hastened along the dusty, rutted streets toward the temporary congressional quarters in a frame structure across from the burned-out Capitol.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, the sixth president of the United States, was one of the most brilliant, learned, and able men who has ever held high office in the nation. Blessed with a strong character, high principles, unswerving integrity, an iron constitution, and a flair for hard work, Adams enjoyed not one but several luminous careers.
THE familiar labels "The Age of Jackson" and "Jacksonian Democracy" identify Andrew Jackson with the era in which he lived and with the advancement of political democracy. This honor may exaggerate his importance, but it also acknowledges the important truth that Jackson significantly contributed to shaping the American nation and its politics.
THE inauguration of Martin Van Buren on 4 March 1837 would long live in the memory of his contemporaries. The thousands who jammed Washington's avenues had come not so much to greet their new leader as to catch a final glimpse of the departing president, Andrew Jackson.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON, the first Whig elected to the presidency, was inaugurated on 4 March 1841. A month later he was dead.
BEYOND a doubt the one-term president who left behind him the greatest record of accomplishment was James Knox Polk. In the area of domestic legislation his administration lowered the prevailing high tariff and established a moderate policy that lasted fifteen years, until the Civil War.
ZACHARY TAYLOR entered the world of politics fresh from his personal triumphs in the Mexican War. Leaders of the Whig party had condemned the war as an inexcusable aggression against Mexico, but they recognized in Taylor's unassuming manner and immense popularity qualities that would make him an ideal presidential candidate to recapture the White House after four years of James K.
AN intriguing paradox characterizes Franklin Pierce's administration: on the one hand, few administrations exerted such a powerful impact on the social and political life of the American nation, but on the other hand, few presidents exercised such little influence on their administration's policies. Pierce was an inconsequential charmer who staked his claim for presidential greatness on other people's not very charming initiatives.
JAMES BUCHANAN was neither exciting nor charismatic, but the power of his office and his character, principles, beliefs, and affinities blended with the extraordinary situations and events of his administration to make him a highly significant president. Historians may argue forever over whether or not the Civil War had become inevitable by the time Buchanan took office, but he clearly exercised a powerful influence on the crises leading to war.
THE date was 11 February 1861.
NO president ever became president under more dramatic and tragic circumstances than did Andrew Johnson. On the night of 14 April 1865, Johnson, recently inaugurated as vice president, went to bed in his hotel room in Washington, D.C.